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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Why the Great AI Backlash Came for a Tiny Startup You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Hari Kunzru wasn’t looking for a fight. On August 7, the Brooklyn-based writer sat on the subway, scrolling through social media. He noticed several authors grumbling about a linguistic analysis site called Prosecraft. It provided breakdowns of writing and narrative styles for more than 25,000 titles, offering linguistic statistics like adverb count and ranking word choices according to how “vivid” or “passive” they appeared. Kunzru pulled up the Prosecraft website and checked to see whether any of his work appeared. Yep. There it was. White Tears, 2017. According to Prosecraft, in the 61st percentile for “vividness.”

Kunzru was irked enough to add his own voice to the rising Prosecraft protest. He wasn’t mad about the analysis itself. But he strongly suspected that the founder, Benji Smith, had obtained his catalog without paying for it. “It seemed very clear to me that he couldn’t have assembled this database in any legal way,” he says. (And Kunzru is no stranger to thinking about these issues; in addition to his successful career as a novelist, he has a past life as a WIRED writer.)

“This company Prosecraft appears to have stolen a lot of books, trained an AI, and are now offering a service based on that data,” Kunzru tweeted. “I did not consent to this use of my work.”

His message went viral. So did a plea from horror writer Zachary Rosenberg, who addressed Benji Smith directly, demanding that his work be removed from the site. Like Kunzru, he’d heard about Prosecraft and found himself upset when he discovered his work analyzed on it. “It felt rather violating,” Rosenberg says.

Hundreds of other authors chimed in. Some had harsh words for Smith: “Entitled techbro.” “Soulless troll.” “Scavenger.” “Shitstain.” “Bloody hemorrhoid.”

Others pondered legal action. The Author’s Guild was inundated with requests for assistance. “The emails just kept coming in,” says Mary Rasenberger, its CEO. “People reacted really strongly.” Prosecraft received hundreds of cease-and-desist letters within 24 hours.

By the end of the day, Prosecraft was kaput. (Smith deleted everything and apologized.) But the intense reaction it provoked is telling: The great AI backlash is in full swing.

Prosecraft’s founder didn’t see the controversy coming.

On Monday, Benji Smith had recently returned to his home in a small town just outside of Portland, Oregon.

He’d spent the weekend at a gratitude meditation conference, and he was excited to return to work. Until this past May, Smith had held a full-time job as a software engineer, but he’d quit to focus on his startup, a desktop word processor aimed at literary types, called Shaxpir. (Yes, pronounced “Shakespeare.”) Shaxpir doesn’t make much money—not enough to cover its cloud expenses yet, Smith says, less than $10,000 annually—but he’d been feeling optimistic about it.

Prosecraft, which Smith launched in 2017, was a side hustle within a side hustle. As a stand-alone website it offered linguistic analysis on novels for free. Smith also used the Prosecraft database for tools within the paid version of Shaxpir, so it did have a commercial purpose.

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Although he was anointed the ur-tech bro of the week, Smith doesn’t have much VC slickness. He’s a walking Portlandia stereotype, with piercings and bird tattoos and stubble; he talks effusively about the art of storytelling, like he’s auditioning for the role of a superfan of The Moth. A self-described theater kid, Smith dabbled in playwriting before getting his first tech gig at a computational linguistics company.

The idea for Prosecraft, he says, came from his habit of counting the words in books he admired while he was working on a memoir about surviving the 2012 Costa Concordia shipwreck. (“Eat Pray Love is 110,000 words,” he says.) He thought other authors might find this type of analysis helpful, and he developed some algorithms using his computational linguistics training. He created a submissions process so writers could add their own work to his database; he hoped it would someday make up the bulk of his library. (All in all, around a hundred authors submitted to Prosecraft over the years.) It did not occur to Smith that Prosecraft would end up enraging many of the very people he wanted to impress.

Prosecraft did not train off any large language models. It was not a generative AI product at all, but something much simpler. More than anything else, it resembled the kind of tool an especially devoted and slightly corny computational linguistics graduate student might whip up as an A+ final project. But it appears to share something crucial with most of the AI projects making headlines these days: It trained on a massive set of data scraped from the internet without regard to possible copyright infringement issues.

Smith saw this as a grimy means to a justifiable end. He doesn’t defend his behavior now—“I understand why everyone is upset”—but wants to explain how he defended it to himself at the time. “What I believed would happen in the long run is that, if I could show people this thing, that people would say, ‘Wow, that's so cool and it's never been done before. And it's so fun and useful and interesting.’ And then people would submit their manuscripts willfully and generously, and publishers would want to have their books on Prosecraft,” he says. “But there was no way to convey what this thing could be without building it first. So I went about getting the data the only way that I knew how—which was, it's all there on the internet.”

Smith didn’t buy the books he analyzed. He got most of them from book-pirating websites. It’s something he alluded to in the apology note he posted when he took Prosecraft down, and it’s something he’ll admit if you ask, although he seems bewildered about how mad people are about it. (“Would people be less angry with me if I bought a copy of each of these books?” Smith wonders out loud as we talk over Zoom. “Yes,” I say.) The practice of using shadow libraries to conduct scholarly work has been debated for years, with projects like Sci-Hub and Libgen disseminating academic papers and books to the applause of many researchers who believe, as the old adage goes, that information wants to be free.

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Many of the authors who chastised Smith, like Kunzru, disapprove primarily of this pirated database. Or, more specifically, they hate the idea of trying to make money off work derived from a pirated library as opposed to simply conducting research. “I’m not against all data scraping,” Devin Madson says. “I know a lot of academics in digital humanities, and they do scrape a lot of data.” Madson was one of the first people to contact Smith to complain about Prosecraft last week. What rubbed her the wrong way was the attempt to profit from the analytical tools developed with scraped data. (Madson also more broadly disapproves of AI writing tools, including Grammarly, for, as she sees it, encouraging the homogenization of literary style.)

Not every author opposed Prosecraft, despite how it appeared on social media. MJ Javani was delighted when he saw that Prosecraft had a page about his first novel. “As a matter of fact, I dare say, I may have paid for this analysis if it had not been provided for free by Prosecraft,” he says. He does not agree with the decision to take the site down. “I think it was a great idea,” Daniela Zamudio, a writer who submitted her work, says.

Even supporters have caveats about that pirated library, though. Zamudio, for instance, understands why people are upset about the piracy but hopes the site will come back using a submissions-based database.

The moral case against Prosecraft is clear-cut: The books were pirated. Authors who oppose book pirating have a straightforward argument against Smith’s project.

But did Smith deserve all that blowback? “I think he needed to be called out,” Kunzru says. “He maybe didn't fully understand the sensitivity right now, you know, in the context of the WGA strike and the focus on large language models and various other forms of machine learning.”

Others aren’t so sure. Publishing industry analyst Thad McIlroy doesn’t approve of data scraping, either. “Pirate libraries are not a good thing,” he says. But he sees the backlash against Prosecraft as majorly misguided. His term? “Shrieking hysteria.”

And some copyright experts have watched the furor with their jaws near the ground. While the argument against piracy is simple to follow, they are skeptical that Prosecraft could’ve been taken to court successfully.

Matthew Sag, a law professor at Emory University, thinks Smith could’ve mounted a successful defense of his project by invoking fair use, a doctrine allowing use of copyrighted materials without permission under certain circumstances, like parody or writing a book review. Fair use is a common defense against claims of copyright infringement within the US, and it’s been embraced by tech companies. It’s a “murky and ill-defined” area of the law, says intellectual property lawyer Bhamati Viswanathan, who wrote a book on copyright and creative arts. Which makes questions of what does or does not constitute fair use equally murky and ill-defined, even if it’s derived from pirated sources.

Sag, along with several other experts I spoke with, pointed to the Google Books and HathiTrust cases as precedent—two examples of the courts ruling in favor of projects that uploaded snippets of books online without obtaining the copyright holders’ permission, determining that they constituted fair use. “I think that the reasons that people are upset really don't have anything to do with this poor guy,” says Sag. “I think it has to do with everything else that’s going on.”

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Earlier this summer, a number of celebrities joined a high-profile class action against OpenAI, a suit that alleges that the generative AI company trained its large language model on shadow libraries. Sarah Silverman, one of the plaintiffs, alleges OpenAI scraped her memoir Bedwetter in this way. While the emotional appeal behind the lawsuit is considerable, its legal merits are a matter of debate within the copyright community. It’s not widely viewed as a slam dunk by any means. It’s not even clear a court will find that the source of the books is relevant to the fair-use question, in the same way that you couldn’t sue a writer for copying your plot on the grounds that they shoplifted a copy of your book.

Rasenberger strongly supports enforcing copyright protections for authors. “If we don't start putting guardrails up, then we will diminish the entire publishing ecosystem,” she says. Rasenberger cites the recent US Supreme Court decision on whether some of Andy Warhol’s artwork infringed on copyright as evidence that the legal system may be reining in its interpretation of fair use. Still, she sees the legal question as unsettled. “What feels fair to an author isn't always going to align with the current fair-use law,” Rasenberger says.

“Prosecraft is a little guy who got swept up in a much bigger thing—he’s collateral damage,” says Bill Rosenblatt, a technologist who studies copyright.

Rosenblatt is fascinated by how far public opinion on copyright and data has shifted since the days of Napster. “Twenty years ago, Big Tech positioned this as ‘it's us against the big evil book publishers, movie studios, record labels,’” Rosenblatt says. Now the dynamic is strikingly different—the tech companies are the Goliaths of business, with artists, musicians, and writers attempting to rein them in. While Prosecraft might’ve been viewed more sympathetically in an earlier era, today it is seen as ideologically aligned with Big Tech, no matter how small it actually is.

Smith offered the same service for five years without issue—but at a moment when writers and artists are deeply wary of artificial intelligence, Prosecraft suddenly looked suspicious in this new context. An AI company only in the loosest sense of the term, Prosecraft wasn’t so much low-hanging fruit as it was a random cucumber on the ground near the fruit tree. Was there something rotten about it? Yes, sure. But describing it as collateral damage isn’t inaccurate. The real targets of the AI backlash that swept Prosecraft away are the generative AI companies that are currently the toast of Silicon Valley, as well as the corporations planning to use those generative AI tools to replace human creative work.

A year from now, it’s unlikely people will remember this particular social-media-fueled controversy. Smith acquiesced to his critics quickly, and a little-used, small-potatoes analytics tool is now defunct. But this incident is illustrative of a larger cultural turn against the unauthorized use of creative work in training models. In this specific case, writers scored an easy victory against one dude in Oregon with a shaky grasp on the concept of passive voice.

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I suspect the reason so many prominent voices celebrated so loudly is because the larger ongoing fights will be much longer, and much harder to win. The Hollywood writer’s strike, with the Writers Guild of America demanding that studios negotiate over the use of AI, is the longest strike of its kind since 1988. The OpenAI lawsuit is another attempt to wrest back control; as mentioned, it is likely to be a far harder fight to win considering fair-use precedence.

In the meantime, writers are also moving to create their own individual guardrails for how generative AI can use their work. Kunzru, for example, recently negotiated a publishing contract and asked to add a clause specifying that his work not be used to train large language models. His publisher cooperated.

Kunzru is far from the only author interested in gaining control over how LLMs train on his work. Many writers negotiating contracts are asking to include AI clauses. Some aren’t having the smoothest experiences. “There's been a huge amount of pushback against AI clauses in contracts,” Madson says.

Literary agent Anne Tibbets has seen a surge in interest from writers in recent months, with many clients in contract negotiations asking to include an AI clause. Some publishers tend to be slow to respond, debating the most appropriate language.

Others aren’t interested in any form of compromise for this potential new revenue stream: “There are some publishers who are flat-out refusing to include language at all,” Tibbets says. Meanwhile, agencies are already hiring consultants specifically to guide their AI policies—a sign that they are well-aware that this conflict isn’t going away.

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